Q302 : What is a Carnal Christian?

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Q302 : What is a Carnal Christian?

Hello Tony,

In Andy's study on Soteriology part 16a, he went into specific situations when biblical believers were being carnal Christians. It made me ask the question, so every time we sin we become a carnal Christian in that moment until that particular sin is confessed? I know the majority of the time he was speaking of a habitual sin that the church of Corinth for example was partaking in and not being sorry for, or convicted of.

That brought up the question in Acts 10:14 when Peter asserted his will against God, did that make him a carnal Christian for a time?

Any help would be appreciated.

A302 : by Tony Garland

The word carnal in the phrase “carnal Christian” is derived from the Latin word carnalis meaning fleshly. When Christians sin, they are behaving according to the flesh.

Paul spoke of the tension which Christians experience when they desire to serve God, but sin instead.

. . . So then, with the mind (Latin 'mente') I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh (Latin 'carne') the law of sin.1

Although believers receive a new nature when born again (2Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24), sin still resides within the flesh—which will not be completely purged until death or translation (1Cor. 15:52; 1Th. 4:17). Until that time, believers are to walk in the Spirit so as not to fulfill the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 6:8).

Whenever a believer sins, he or she is “in the flesh” (carnal). Yet this is not the same as being a “carnal Christian”—as the phrase is typically understood. The phrase “carnal Christian” refers to an ongoing pattern of sin which results in the behavior of the believer looking no different than that of the unbeliever in relation to the particular sinful practice.

Paul describes this pattern of behavior in his first letter to the Church at Corinth:

And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual [people] but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able [to receive it], and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where [there are] envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like [mere] men?2

Paul refers to them as “babe’s in Christ,” because they are “behaving like [mere] men.” What Paul is saying is that they have not matured and that their behavior is no different than the unsaved! Even so, Paul is not questioning the fact of their salvation. This is the essence, then, of what it means to be a carnal Christian: a believer who is truly saved, but has not grown spiritually such that they practice sin in some area of their life in a way which is indistinguishable from an unsaved individual. If you examined the life of the believer and compared it with an unbeliever in relation to the sinful practice at issue, you would not notice a difference in behavior. This includes two key aspects: 1) a lack of awareness of the practice as sin; 2) a lack of conviction of conscience when practicing the sin.

So, although all Christians commit sin from time-to-time (1 John. 1:8), this is not the same as being a “carnal Christian.” There remains an agreement with God about what constitutes sin and conviction of sin leading to repentance (a change of mind and resulting behavior).

Regarding your question about Peter’s sin of opposing God’s will (Acts 10:14): this is a historically unique situation in that God is declaring foods that He Himself once deemed unclean (e.g., Lev. 11; Deu. 14) as now being clean (Acts 10:15). Peter’s refusal to eat was actually a reflection of his desire to follow God—to avoid eating animals prohibited under the Law God gave through Moses. Although he is momentarily opposing God’s will, it is only because he has not yet grasped a change which God is bringing about through the process of progressive revelation (Mat. 15:11; Mark 7:15-19; Rom. 14:14, 20; Col. 2:16; 1Ti. 4:14). Peter eventually comes to realize that the vision and command are also about about whether Jews such as Peter should consider Gentiles as unclean (Acts 10:34-35; 11:3-12).

Resistance to God’s will—even if momentary—must be considered sin. Yet here God is initiating a change in the laws required for believers by way of progressive revelation. And it is Peter’s zeal for God, coupled with a temporary lack of understanding, which fuels his resistance. This is very different from the immaturity and sinful insensitivity which characterizes that of a “carnal Christian.”

For more on the characteristics of carnal Christianity,3 see the presentation by Steve Lewis titled, Believers Who Act like Unbelieversa.


1.NKJV, (Romans 7:25, annotated with Latin from the Vulgate)
2.NKJV, (1Cor. 3:1-3)
3.In our day, numerous professing Christians endorse viewpoints which are completely contrary to the teachings of God, for example: endorsing abortion and homosexual union. Many are probably not true believers. Others are carnal Christians who are incredibly ignorant of God’s law or hold unsanctified views opposing the Lord they profess. It is not always easy to discern which is which!


NKJVUnless indicated otherwise, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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